The New York-based actor returns to D.C. to star in a play that sheds light on a current overlooked fact.
When Ryan Jamaal Swain spun on-screen in FX’s critically acclaimed “Pose,” he commanded attention with his expressive dance style and performance as Damon Richards-Evangelista. Portraying a Black gay teen who finds his chosen family in New York City’s Black and Latinx ball culture in the ’80s, Swain helped shed light on an overlooked community living during the HIV and AIDS epidemic.
“I’m fortunate to have been part of a project that changed the course of American television history and how we talk about people living with HIV and AIDS,” Swain says. “I think that type of representation has the opportunity to shift hearts and minds in the direction of, ‘Let’s look at full people instead of what circumstances are a part of them.’”
In the same vein, Swain is now starring in a project that sheds light on a current overlooked fact: One in two Black gay men will contract HIV in their lifetime. The play, “one in two,” will run at Mosaic Theater through June 25. Swain joins local theatre heavy hitters Justin Weaks and Michael Kevin Darnall — fresh off their successful run in “Angels in America” at Arena Stage — as three Black queer men navigating the possibility of, or receiving, an HIV diagnosis in modern day.
We caught up with Swain to learn more about pursuing this play, grappling with the show’s inherent unpredictability and prioritizing self-care.
District Fray: Why did you want to star in “one in two”?
Ryan Jamaal Swain: At this juncture in my life and my career, I’m only taking things that are personal and pivotal stories. I saw the play’s world premiere in New York City and left the theater shaken to my core about how I show up in the margins of the lives of so many other people that are part of my community who are having to experience living with the [HIV] virus.
Why do you believe there is not more awareness on the statistic that one in two Black gay men will contract HIV in their lifetime?
Black and brown people have been on the outside of the margins for so long with healthcare and classism. There’s this distrust with health and Black bodies. I think we’re seeing a new generation, and this impetus to have autonomy over our full bodies — there’s a sense of respect being demanded. I’m looking forward to all the things happening with Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and different organizations that are making sure that we get to zero and we stay at zero, that we destigmatize HIV and AIDS, that we do all this work to make sure people realize it’s an additive to your life. You can still show up for your life in a very normal, visceral, healthy and joyous way.
I don’t think I have ever seen a script where so much of the play is determined by the audience. What was your first impression when you learned that the audience selects the role you play (#1, #2 or #3) each time?
The first initial response was nervousness and fear. This is the first time I’m a part of something where it’s not a static track. I kind of went in confidently with blind faith knowing that Mosaic Theater, the director and the team are going to support all of us actors in what we need to do each night with our fourth cast member, the audience. I’m excited to see the social experiment take place. The audience doesn’t really know what they’re voting on, and it allows people to sit with their discomfort and then see what they chose play out.
You often work with intense subject matter and have overcome a lot of personal tragedy. How do you self-care?
It is a joy and a pleasure to do this project. I have been fortunate to be on shows that have something to say. But they also come with harrowing and sobering truths about humanity. What I’ve done to make sure I’m taking care of myself is surround myself with my tribe members, my friends, my family who only want to make sure I’m good. And focus on things that bring me joy. Skincare has really been big for me. I have a dance break before I leave for rehearsal every day. After rehearsal, I get home and take some time to read Viola Davis’ “Finding Me,” play my Nintendo Switch, have something good to eat, then I’ll probably open the scripts up and start working. I’m just giving myself the capacity to enjoy, to not be anxious but to take it one day at a time.
How is D.C. treating you so far?
I tried to pack everything that I possibly could suspect the weather to be. But in true D.C. fashion, she always throws a curveball at you honey, so it is 55 degrees for the next three days, and I’m now running through all of the sweaters I brought.
Rapid Fire Round
TV show you are watching.
Go-to style of dance.
Afro-Cuban or modern.
Favorite ballroom family.
I will say that I am a child of all of them, because you are not going to get me [laughs].
Current songs on repeat.
“PLASTIC OFF THE SOFA,” “VIRGO’S GROOVE,” “MOVE” and “HEATED,” in that order, by Beyoncé.
Quote stuck on your mind.
“We are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” — Viola Davis
See Swain in “one in two” at Mosaic Theater Company through June 25. To see showtimes and get tickets, visit mosaictheater.org. To stay up to date with Swain’s latest projects, follow him on Instagram @ryanjamaalswain.